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Mr. Bercow: That is diversity.

Mr. Gummer: We are on a free vote.

Mr. Stunell: True, so let us examine that diversity. If I understood his remarks correctly, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is in favour of the principle but against the specifics of giving relief in the individual case, whereas the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is in favour of finding a way of allowing the gentleman in Scotland to stand, but opposed to the principle. The hon. Member for Buckingham is in favour both of the principle and of the mechanism and therefore supports the Bill, whereas the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) opposes the Bill lock, stock and barrel.

Finally, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is not merely in favour of the Bill, but wants to go further and eliminate all discrimination against religious groups. I make that five categories of opinion within the Conservative party, whose members have a free vote tonight. Perhaps the Buckingham consensus will hold--we shall see. However, I can assure the hon. Member for Buckingham that, in a free vote, we Liberal Democrats will all be in the same Lobby as him.

Mr. Bercow: Who is the "we"?

Mr. Stunell: As is so often the case, I am surrounded by a heavenly host of my colleagues.

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Having spoken about the Conservatives, I turn to the Government. I think that they would admit--privately, in the Tea Room, after the vote is over--to a little embarrassment about the way in which the Bill has been introduced. Whatever the Minister says--he has tried to frame it in the best possible light--the truth is that the issue was clearly on the agenda three years ago and there were plenty of opportunities for progress to be made far more briskly than it has. Indeed, if we look for historical precedents, we see that it was on the agenda far more than three years ago.

Instead, the Government jerked into action only when they realised that it was in their best interests to do so. That is not the right foundation for reform. I made that point on Second Reading and I repeat it again today. It is the test of a reformer that he reforms when it is not wholly in his own interest, not that he reforms only when it is solely in his own interest. When I see what opportunities there have been to introduce alternative legislation to fill the slot, it is clear that the Bill is opportunistic in its timing, if nothing else.

One argument against the Bill is that we should not proceed on the basis of particular cases. I do not believe that that is the right approach, and several Members have sought to refute it. I shall briefly add some further refutations.

The legislation that caused all the problems was The House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801. It was put on the statute book following the election of the Rev. Horne Tooke to Old Sarum. I like the name Horne Tooke and I feel the need to wind it into my speech.

The House was scandalised by the election of the Rev. Horne Tooke. He was such a radical voice that the House wanted to find a way of excluding him from this place. Legislation was brought forward, which we are now seeking to repeal. It was designed specifically to exclude someone who was regarded as a dangerous radical from this place. The precedent for the 1801 Act coming into force is hardly one from which we can derive pride. We certainly should not be worried about considering a particular case and repealing the Act.

Another hard case was that of the Rev. MacManaway in 1950. On that occasion, the Home Secretary of the day ran away from the issue. The resulting legal judgment probably left us in an even deeper mess than hitherto.

Much has been said about priests who will be too busy to do two jobs. I do not know about that. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said that he is a practising barrister. I remember having a discussion with him shortly after the last general election, when he was no longer occupying a Cabinet seat. He made it clear that he regarded it as an important part of his role as a Member to pursue a wider career and to bring extra experience into the House. No doubt he would say to his colleagues in the legal profession that his membership of this place gave him added insights when it came to working with the law.

I do not support or defend the right hon. and learned Gentleman's pursuit of a second career. I do not pursue one. However, it is difficult to see how the commitment, experience, skill and brain power that is needed to be brought to bear by a priest in holy orders, when coupled with membership of this place, would put the individual in a less favourable position than a QC or other barrister who pursues a legal career at full blast outside the House.

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The argument that someone cannot do two jobs does not bear examination, particularly when it comes from the Conservative party, which historically has seen employment outside the House as bringing value to the House rather than taking value away from it.

The case in point involves not a practising priest, but someone who has taken holy orders and, because his Church's discipline does not allow for the relinquishment of those orders, is deemed still to be a priest. If he had been an Anglican--a member of the Church of England in England and an ordained member of it--he would have been able to relinquish holy orders. As a retired clergyman, he could have taken up his preferred career in politics.

Many arguments have been advanced about the special role that priests fulfil, about the necessity of their committing time to it and about conflicts with Church discipline, but when we unpick them we find that they are entirely irrelevant to the central question that faces the House, which is whether we want to maintain discrimination against a religious minority, preventing members of it from entering the House if they so choose and the electorate so chooses, or whether we want to sweep that discrimination away. The answer for me and for many of my colleagues is that it should have been swept away a long time ago, and we should act now.

6.34 pm

Ms Ryan: The House can be proud of itself today if, as we may be entitled to expect, we give the Bill a Third Reading. Ensuring equal rights for all our citizens is an important part of the work of Parliament, which our citizens would expect us to do.

The question of timing has been raised, but the issue was never likely to come before the House unless there was an individual case driving it. That may be a shame, but it is realistic to acknowledge it. Because of that, the issue was always likely to arise a little late in the day. If there is a particular case driving it, that must involve someone who has been selected, and we select candidates not long before a general election.

The timing of the Bill was therefore inevitable. It is not opportunistic simply because the candidate in question is a Labour candidate. I say that for two reasons. First, in his opening remarks on Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Minister was entirely open about the case that triggered the Bill. There is no hidden agenda. Secondly, I believe, although I accept that some Opposition Members may not agree, that a Labour Government would have taken the same action in the case of a Conservative candidate. I believe that because of our commitment to equal rights, human rights and social justice. I do not accept that the timing of the Bill presents a difficulty.

If there has been a difficulty, it has been for only one person--Mr. Cairns. I am pleased that we have removed that difficulty, as he is entitled to the same rights as anyone else in this land. He is entitled to look to his Government and Parliament to ensure that he has those rights. We can be proud that we have taken the necessary action.

In some ways, it is amusing for me, as a woman Member of Parliament, to argue for equal rights for men. Clearly, the Bill may affect women as well, now that there are ordained women priests in the Church of England; it will mainly affect ex-priests, as they do not have the right

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to renounce, wait for six months, and so on. It is a pleasure to argue for the equal rights of men. Many male colleagues in this place argue for the equal rights of women, so it is a pleasure to repay them. I feel certain that any man who benefits from the legislation to enter the House will want to continue the tradition of arguing for the equal rights of all, whatever their gender or former profession.

It is right that there should no longer be grounds for distinguishing between clergy of different religions. That is not the business of the House. Equally, there are no grounds for legislation that applies detrimentally or punitively to all clergy, so it is right that the Bill should become law. The matters with which we are dealing are matters for the Churches and for the electorate.

The question whether there is to be a free vote is a red herring. I cannot be sure, but I guess that it is raised by the Opposition who, as has been said, have four, five or more positions on the matter, so there is a problem of discipline. The reason that there is not a free vote for Labour Members, as I understand it, is that this is not an issue of conscience. It is a constitutional issue, so I do not see why there should be a free vote.

I understand that some Opposition Members view the Bill as a matter of conscience, but I do not think that they are correct or that they have a free vote because of that view. They have one because they cannot guarantee that they will be united in the Lobby. As far as I know, no Labour Member has been up in arms about a free vote. None of my hon. Friends have told me since Second Reading that the Bill is a matter of conscience and that they are being forced through the Lobby on Labour business with which they do not agree.

I think that the Opposition's point about a free vote, which has been made a number of times, holds no water and makes no sense. I reiterate that it is entirely correct for the Bill not to be decided by such a vote as it is Government business and deals with a constitutional issue. Indeed, I am pleased that it will not be decided in that manner, although if it had been, the outcome of Third Reading would have been the same as those of Second Reading and Report.

It is right that we are now in line with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

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